Commentary: A new understanding of Cuba
Feb. 17, 2004
A UMNS Commentary by the Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston*
I was born a Cold War baby.
understanding of Cuba is informed principally by a series of memories:
the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, JFK conspiracy allegations, a
decades-long U.S. trade embargo, refugees on rafts, Cuban dissidents
living in Miami and a seemingly uneducated, cigar-smoking, ruthless
dictator who wears a military uniform.
I knew my childhood memories were likely distorted and twisted, I
didn't know how much until I traveled to that Caribbean nation this
winter as part of a delegation from the National Council of Churches in
four years ago, the council helped bring Elian Gonzales, the boy lost
at sea, back to Cuba to reunite him with his father. On this trip, we
planned to meet with the Cuban Council of Churches and witness the
consecration of the first Greek Orthodox Church in Cuba for more than 44
years, led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
I arrived, I was immediately struck by how the U.S. trade embargo
affects Cuba. Much of the nation is stuck in a time before the
Castro-led revolution of 1959. Pre-embargo 1950s Buicks and
turquoise-colored Chevrolets, many of which are still in excellent
condition, are a common sight. New buildings are a rare sight.
was the next night at a convention center when a Cuban told me
something I didn't know about Fidel Castro. The proud older gentleman
said, "Our president has a Ph.D., you know." Actually, I didn't.
hundred were in attendance that night to hear the ecumenical patriarch
speak as part of a series of events leading up to the consecration.
Dressed in the traditional long Greek Orthodox black cassock and tall
black cap, his theme was world environmental concerns.
before he could speak, he was upstaged by a surprise. The audience
suddenly stood, clapped, and in walked President Fidel Castro without
announcement. He waved to those gathered and quickly sat down just three
rows in front of me. I felt a pang of nervousness as I abandoned the
patriarch's speech, instead mesmerized by the fact I was in the same
room with my childhood communist metaphor. After a few minutes, he
his green military uniform, Castro appeared to be in good health and
genuinely liked by the people. His entrance was in stark contrast to how
I've experienced a U.S. president's arrival at a similar event, when
everyone was well-searched and rows of metal detectors stood outside. No
security checks were present here as people walked up and took
photographs as they wished.
discovered that, only months earlier, Fidel Castro had spoken to the
nation about his environmental concerns, which he shares with Ecumenical
Patriarch Bartholomew. It didn't fit my image of him.
my visit with the delegation, I saw Castro three times, coming as close
as a handshake to him. Once he looked at me briefly as he passed by,
his eyes scanning the crowd.
important, however, were meetings with regional church leaders.
Although the National Council of Churches' relationship with the Cuban
Council of Churches predates the Cuban revolution, many leaders
expressed anxiety over U.S.-Cuban relations.
Cuban told me his fear of Cuba's being on President Bush's "Axis of
Evil" list. He said, "Honestly, I feel that your president may look to
Cuba next before the election."
asked what he meant. "Afghanistan-Iraq-Iran-North Korea-Cuba," he said,
referring to the recent U.S. history of pre-emptive war.
by the National Council of Churches to normalize U.S. relations with
Cuba are greatly appreciated by Cuban church leaders. They hope our
collective work will change the hearts of politicians in this election
year. Almost every discussion included the expressed wish of lifting the
embargo, expressed as an almost-constant breath prayer to God. I've
joined in the prayer since my return.
will remain an enigma to me. Up close, it does not live up it its
reputation as a communist society ruled by a ruthless dictator. It
cannot be experienced in a single trip or perhaps in even a dozen.
That's not because its people are poor, or that its president withholds
certain civil liberties from the citizens, or even because its socialist
organization and economy are traditionally feared by us capitalists.
really is not at all an entity that thinks and acts as one.
Understanding this has helped me as a father, a husband and a pastor.
The visit reminded me that my children don't have to possess certain,
particular characteristics to be American. There is no unique set of
American characteristics, just as there is no unique set of Cuban
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